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  • Writer's pictureAhtaram Shin

The soundless language of Rohingya artist Enayet Khan

Words by Ahtaram Shin. Artworks by Enayet Khan.

Portrait of Enayet Khan. 2019 © David Palazón.

Enayet Khan's artistic journey began at a tender age when he was just in the fifth grade. Despite lacking proper tools and equipment, he found solace in drawing and painting. He now focuses his artwork on depicting the Rohingya people - their struggles, cultural traditions, historical events, and daily lives.

"Art is a soundless language. It helps me disclose every hidden matter in my life." – Enayet said.

As an artist, he expressed the journey of the 2017 influx and the experience of camp life with full three emotions: the burning of our homes, the separation of families, and the unspeakable atrocities inflicted by the military. Through the trauma, vulnerability, and violence experienced both in the camp and in Arakan, their lives are trapped in an everlasting calamity. © Enayet Khan.

In 2017, the Rohingya people fled to Bangladesh, leaving behind their homeland in Arakan. Enayet Khan, part of the influx into Bangladesh, started painting to document the Rohingya's suffering. This narrative received little coverage from major media outlets at the time. Through his paintings, Khan aimed to depict the experiences of the Rohingya - their difficulties, perseverance, and harsh conditions they faced. His artwork gave voice to stories that may not have been widely told.

"Nobody truly knows the depths of what the Rohingya endured during the 2017 exodus," Enayet explained. "My aim was to express my community's emotions and depict their stories through my art."

"As a Rohingya individual, witnessing our homes go up in flames back in Myanmar is a heart-wrenching memory that still haunts me. The fires, depicted by the fiery upper eyelashes, symbolize the devastation and loss that swept through our communities. Crossing the border, drew by the lower eyelashes, was a perilous journey filled with fear and uncertainty. The crossing over the Naf River into Bangladesh was a journey marked by tragedy and sorrow. Its waters, filled with the tears of our people, hold the weight of countless lives lost and dreams shattered. Our once thriving villages now lie in ruins, victims of the brutal oppression by the Myanmar military. Life in the overcrowded refugee camps is a daily struggle. Yet, despite the adversity, the Rohingya community remains resilient, holding hope and looking for justice, peace, and a chance to rebuild our lives in safety. Through this painting, I aim to raise awareness of our plight and advocate for support and solidarity from the international community." – Enayet explained. "Tears of Sorrow.". 2024 © Enayet Khan

I witnessed what happened to us in 2017: how the military destroyed our lives within a few days by burning our village, mosque, school, and murdering children, raping and murdering men, and driving us out of the country. I depicted the situation in which we had to leave the country. © Enayet Khan.

After the Rohingya refugee influx into Bangladesh in August 2017, researchers aimed to document the atrocities against the community. However, written accounts could not fully convey the extent of their suffering. The Rohingya often struggled to verbally express the depths of their trauma. In this context, Enayet Khan sought to visually depict the Rohingya's plight through paintings. Enayet Khan's art became a means to give voice to their experiences in a way that transcended the limitations of language.

"As I witnessed it firsthand, I drew numerous paintings to document it and create a visual record," Enayet Khan explains.
© Enayet Khan

Enayet's talent was spotted by the former curator at the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre and subsequently was recruited as part of the implementation team. Using his art as a tool for mental health support and healing, he later joined Artolution in some of its public art activities in the refugee camp.

Enayet painting a mural with Artolution. 2022 © Courtesy of the artist

Enayet Khan in traditional Rohingya attire. 2023 © Courtesy of the artist.

In the soft glow of a full moon night, Enayet Khan's artistry illuminates the vibrant culture of Rohingya village life in Arakan. Wooden houses dot the landscape, nestled amidst the shade of coconut and mango trees, while women gracefully carry water, and elders regale listeners with stories of bygone eras. Traditional "Hoñla" songs fill the air, their melodies intertwining with the joyous preparations for a wedding. A radiant bride sits upon a modest mat, surrounded by friends delicately applying henna in intricate patterns. Nearby, men gather over steaming cups of tea, engaging in lively conversation. Children's laughter rings out as they immerse themselves in traditional games of "Mól Kelá." © Enayet Khan

In Arakan, the Rohingya had a rich cultural heritage, with their own distinct belongings, agricultural practices, and homes. They were masters of crafting farming tools, weaving intricate materials, and creating beautiful baskets – skills honed through generations of experience. This knowledge was preserved through oral tradition, as they lacked a written history.

"I believe that my art can contribute to visualising and preserving these images, depicting exactly how things were and capturing the essence of their way of life," Enayet Khan said.

"As a refugee artist, I don’t have any platform to showcase my work. I worked with many NGO's and the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre, drawing and painting many artworks about the Rohingya, and showcase my people culture and history through them." Enayet said.

Initially, Enayet felt demotivated as his efforts to showcase his art seemed futile, making him question the value and importance of his work. However, fortune favored him with several opportunities to present his artwork at international exhibitions. Enayet's art has been featured in significant exhibitions, reflecting both his artistic skill and the narrative of the Rohingya. Notable showcases include the 2021 Oxfam Rohingya Arts Campaign, the 2022 Genocide Survivors in Oslo, and 'We are Rohingya' at the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka. His work 'Rohingya lifestyle in Arakan' was awarded 2nd prize in the 2022 Remembrance Day Art Contest by the Art Garden Rohingya. In 2023, his art gained further exposure at the Dhaka Literary Festival as part of Artolution's 'Renaissance of Rohingya Culture', the Rohingya Centre of Canada’s exhibition "Picturing the Rohingya Genocide: Resistance, Resilience & Remembrance", and at the “Jasbaa: The Art of Rohingya Refugee Resistance” exhibition at the University of Waterloo in Canada. These displays underscore his commitment to using art as a tool for cultural storytelling and social commentary.

Enayet Khan at the Rohingyatographer photo exhibition 'We are Rohingya' held at the Cox's Bazar Cultural Centre in September 2022 supported by UNHCR.

"When I joined Rohingyatographer in 2021, I finally had a platform to showcase my artworks as an author," Enayet recalls.

He conducts numerous art workshops in the camp, teaching basic art skills. In 2023, Enayet founded the Rohingya Art Club, a group dedicated to nurturing artistic talents within his community.

"Art not only fosters creativity but also provides mental support for the adolescents in my community," Enayet explains, underscoring the therapeutic power of art.

Now, many of these young Rohingya artists use their skills to narrate different stories to the international community about their history, culture, lives, and crises through their artworks. At the very least, they can express their once voiceless words through drawing, gaining mental well-being and many other benefits in the process.

Enayet with one of his students proudly displaying an Arakan drawing. 2023 © Courtesy of the author.

This story is sponsored by Sahat Zia Hero from his Prince Claus Seeds Award 2023



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